Can’t We All Just Get Along? (A history of congressional polarization)

Measured on a popular political science scale of ideology (DW-Nominate), this is the house of representatives in 1985-1986:

198586 House of Reps DW Nominate


And this is today’s House:

201213 House of Reps DW nominate


Both of those graphs are from Ideological Cartography. You’ll notice that it’s a lot harder to negotiate when there’s no overlap between the two parties. Here’s a look at trends stretching from 1879 to 2012:




Both parties have moved, but Republicans have moved much farther, much more quickly. This is particularly true in the House of Representatives. This led long-time congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstien (they literally wrote the book on Congressional dysfunction)  to write last year in the Washington Post:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

Looking at our current gridlock, this is a map of the districts where the 80 representatives (1/5 of 1/2 of the legislature) come from:



As Ryan Lizza concludes in the New Yorker:

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.

There are several reasons for our increasing polarization, although the fact that most congressional districts are secure, and therefore members fear primaries more than general elections surely ranks near the top. This visualization of that effect comes from Nate Silver:

Silver chartYou’ll notice that this measure also tells the same story, both sides more polarized, but the GOP to a much greater degree. Now, there are a few things we might be able to do to correct this long-term trend (open primaries would help), but I’ll let a more extensive analysis of our options going forward wait for another post. For now, I just want to echo the exhortations of Mann and Ornstein on the journalistic coverage of congressional conflict:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Ultimately, if any of the institutional changes we could make to improve the system are going to happen, we need to first come face to face with the reality of what is going on now. This is not a simple story of bad leaders on either side, but instead a system that produces incentives for each individual member of congress that lead inevitably to gridlock.



4 thoughts on “Can’t We All Just Get Along? (A history of congressional polarization)

  1. Pingback: The Shutdown | Faith and Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Why Congress Should Continue to be Paid and Why It Matters | Faith and Public Policy

  3. Pingback: Want the shutdown to end? Blame a party, either party. Just not both. | Faith and Public Policy

  4. Pingback: Congressional Dysfunction and Presidential Power | Some Things Considered

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